"Uncertainty and disruption create opportunity... If you're prepared." That was the message of Tom McLeod, founder and president of McLeod software, in his opening address at the McLeod user conference in Nashville last month.
He was talking about all the mixed messages we’re getting on the health of the economy and the industry, which was a topic at our own Heavy Duty Trucking Exchange earlier in the month.
Despite all the gloom-and-doom, sky-is-falling, click-on-me headlines we see in the general media, people like myself who have been in trucking for quite a while think it’s more a matter of things normalizing after COVID-19 threw everything into disarray.
Some doomsayers point to the number of trucking companies that have been going out of business. Well, there were an unprecedented number of new, mostly small, companies that got their authority in the past couple of years chasing the ridiculously high spot rates that we saw after the initial drop from the pandemic. So it’s not surprising that a number of those companies, when the spot rates took a pretty steep dive and fuel prices went the other direction, couldn’t keep making a profit. Instead of having their own authority, I suspect many of them went back to being a leased owner-operator or even an employee truck driver.
Anyone who has been in the industry for a while knows that trucking is a cyclical business. When the economy gets hot, trucking capacity gets tight and rates go up. Fleets respond by buying more trucks and hiring more drivers and before you know it, there’s overcapacity, so rates go down.
Not to say we aren’t in an uncertain, unsettling, and perhaps unprecedented environment.
So back to Tom McLeod‘s point about being prepared. When I asked him to elaborate on that further, he talked about the need to get back to basic blocking and tackling.
There are so many exciting things going on with technology in our industry, so many possible things that we could do with all that technology and all that data, that it can be easy to overlook the ways technology can help fleets in their day-to-day operations. Automating routine paperwork can make fleets more efficient. Predictive maintenance can help slash expensive downtime. Real-time rate analytics can help carriers ensure they’re charging the right price.
Blocking and tackling and technology also were in the news when U.S. Xpress recently backed away from its high-tech, digitally dispatched Variant fleet to focus on, guess what, blocking and tackling.
The Variant fleet was using digital dispatch and other technology to make the fleet more efficient and to better communicate with drivers. It seemed to work at first. Variant drivers were getting more miles and turnover was lower than the regular fleet.
But last year, that turnover kept getting worse and worse, and so did U.S. Xpress financials. As U.S. Xpress saw a net loss of $9.5 million in the first six months of 2022, President and CEO Eric Fuller said two things became apparent to him.
“The first was, we built some really advanced technology to deploy across the company,” he explained in an investor conference call announcing a “realignment” of the company that folds Variant into the rest of the truckload fleet. “The second was, the technology can’t replace all the knowledge and experience of our people. They need to work together.
“We still think a lot of the technology we developed has a lot of value. But with that said, we are kind of skinnying down the strategy. Operationally right now internally we’re really focused on the basics, the blocking and the tackling.”
So if the past couple of years have been so hectic that you haven’t been paying as much attention as you should to the basics of running your company as efficiently and safely as you can, this might be a good time to change gears.
This editorial commentary appears in the October 2022 issue of Heavy Duty Trucking.
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